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Film and the Arts

January '19 Digital Week I

Blu-rays of the Week 

I Still See You 


After a cataclysmic event that killed many, survivors still see “remnants,” the apparitions of those who died, in Scott Speer’s workmanlike adaptation of Daniel Waters’ novel.




Bella Thorne gives a forceful performance as a high school student trying to solve a murder mystery that may or may not involve her teacher (well-played by Dermot Mulroney). There’s an excellent Blu-ray transfer; extras are director Scott Speer and Thorne’s commentary, featurettes and deleted scenes (with Speer’s commentary).


Outrage Coda 

(Film Movement)

In Takeshi Kitano’s latest gangster flick, a retired yakuza returns to Japan from Korean exile to slaughter seemingly everyone in his path, piling up one of the highest body counts in any “Beat” Takeshi movie.




Although his films are pretty much interchangeable at this point—and this is the last of a trilogy, following Outrage and Beyond Outrage—Kitano’s energy as director provides a car-crash quality that keeps one watching for the next ridiculously overdone bloodletting. The film has a great hi-def transfer; lone extra is a full-length making-of documentary.








In a scuzzy-looking Berlin, two criminals intent on avenging the indiscriminate murder of their family members find to their own peril that their antagonists come in the form of weapon-wielding fairy-tale villains.




Adolfo Kolmerer and William James have made a demented, sometimes enervating horror comedy that has enough outlandishly entertaining moments to be more than just the latest violent Coen-Tarantino knockoff. There’s a solid hi-def transfer.


DVDs of the Week

Elizabeth I and Her Enemies 


This informative British docuseries features a pair of historians, Dan Jones and Suzannah Lipscomb, who analyze Queen Elizabeth I’s life from birth—when she was apparently sexually abused by her uncle—until she assumed the throne and became the most powerful (if loneliest) queen that the world has ever seen.




The usual mélange of reenactments (Lily Cole plays Elizabeth in a surprisingly strong performance), camera-ready discussion and narration makes this three-episode series a fascinating historical story well-told.






Love, Gilda 


Although this 90-minute portrait of comedienne Gilda Radner is a touch hagiographic—glossing over less appetizing aspects of her life story—its affection toward its subject (a beloved show biz veteran taken too soon) is contagious.




Director Lisa DaPolito interviews friends, family, colleagues (conspicuous by their absence are Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray), contemporaries and those she influenced, and uses Gilda’s own footage, both home movies and audio recordings, to emotional effect. Extras include additional interviews and Gilda’s home movies.


Our Cartoon President—Complete 1st Season 


The problem with tRumpworld is that nothing any satirists do—whether The Onion, Bill Maher, SNL, even the great impersonator Anthony Atamanuik—is as absurdly funny as the real thing. But this Showtime animated series (which started as skits on Colbert’s Late Show) does its level best to show how the illegitimate president and his swinish family are ruining not only the White House but the nation and the world.




But after several episodes, the humor wears thin; Colbert’s brief skits are better. The set includes all 17 episodes, along with the election special; extras include Colbert’s intro, audio commentaries, and more.






Scarred Hearts 

(Big World Pictures)

In Radu Jude’s slow-burning 1930s drama, a sickly young man enters a sanitarium and cultivates fruitful relationships inside its walls despite what’s happening in an increasingly right-wing Romania. Based on works by author M. Blecher, Jude’s film is yet another fascinating formal experiment to come out of a rejuvenated Romanian cinema, which features directors Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu.




But Jude—who shot this in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio so it looks like a TV movie or something from the period in which it’s set—has a rigorous technique that keeps this minimalist drama quietly enthralling for 141 minutes.

Off-Broadway Musical Review—Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless”


Book by Amy Heckerling; choreography by Kelly Devine; directed by Kristin Hanggi

Performances through January 12, 2019


Dove Cameron (left) as Cher in Clueless (photo: Monique Carboni)

Amy Heckerling wrote and directed the movie Clueless in 1995, a hip update of Jane Austen’s Emma—about a young woman who fixes up everyone around her but only belatedly discovers the perfect man for herself—which made a star out of Alicia Silverstone as high school senior Cher, she of the valley-girlisms (“as if”).


Now, in 2018, Heckerling has transformed Clueless into an amusing musical that—at least in this spry incarnation savvily directed by Kristin Hanggi and wittily choreographed by Kelly Devine—follows the movie closely enough for those who are content to see the movie played out onstage. Heckerling’s biggest musical conceit is to take a bunch of songs from that era (by the likes of the Spin Doctors, TLC, Des’ree and Crash Test Dummies) and give her characters new lyrics to sing. 


So when Cher finds out that Christian, the boy whom she has a crush on, only wants to be friends, NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” is sung as her friends taunt her with “Is he bi, bi, bi?” Obviously your mileage may vary on how annoying all this is—I hit the wall after about the third repurposed tune—but even those who get into it will admit that the repetitiveness is apparent long before Kim Wilde’s euphoric “Kids in America” wraps things up.


Befitting Devine’s exuberant choreographic moves, the ebullient cast is energetic throughout on Beowulf Boritt’s stylishly tongue-in-cheek sets. And superbly filling Silverstone’s shoes is Dove Cameron, a Disney Channel veteran who sings, dances and acts with a flair that makes the part of Cher all her own and makes Clueless anything but.



The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

"Never-Ending Man": Hayao Miyazaki's Lonely Legacy & Search for New Life


Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki
Directed by Kaku Arakawa

A cinema verite style documentary, “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki” follows the legendary animator as he plans one more short film after announcing his own retirement. For fans of anime, no introduction is necessary for Hayao Miyazaki, and “Never-Ending Man” banks on that. This isn’t a documentary encapsulating Miyazaki’s life and the history of Studio Ghibli, but rather a personal story of an elderly man as he staves off the deathly stillness of his self-imposed retirement. So he muses on making a short film about a caterpillar instead of a lengthy feature. Introduced to some young upstarts who try to warm him up to using CGI instead of the painstaking, hand-drawn animation he’s used to, Miyazaki seems rejuvenated by the trials of completing his short.

NEM USPoster WEBDirected by Kaku Arakawa for NHK TV in 2016 and now distributed in the U.S. by GKIDS, it’s shot mostly on handheld cameras which don’t look particularly flattering when blown up for a cinema screen, but it does give the film a personalized, fly-on-the-wall feel. The tone is set early on when Miyazaki mentions his dislike of “Let It Go,” the then-new song from “Frozen,” Disney’s mega-hit animated feature. He bristles at the idea of being self-satisfied with the idea of being who he is. Instead, Miyazaki values second-guessing his abilities and what can be learned through struggle (though he sure talks with exuberant authority to his subordinate animators). Miyazaki saw making this short, “Boro the Caterpillar” (which saw release in March, 2018) as a source of vitality and pointed out how he practically fed off the energy and enthusiasm of his younger staff members. Though in the past feeding off the exuberance of others has satiated Miyazaki, while leaving others burnt out.

Miyazaki — and the films made with his Studio Ghibli team — has been beloved for decades. But In recent years, a cult of personality has arisen around him. To many, he represents a kindly, grandfatherly figure, spinning tales of whimsy. But to the many who have worked with him over the years, he’s not considered the warmest of souls.

This feature doc honors his legacy but also reveals that he’s a lonely and aloof curmudgeon. Brief glimpses of his harshness with animators emerges as he berates one to think before he draws or just quit (“Ghost in the Shell” director Mamoru Oshii once said Miyazaki ran Ghibli like the Kremlin). His old friends are either dying off or he’s lamenting the loss of (unnamed) would-be successors to Ghibli’s helm, which he either burnt-out or drove away. Eagle-eyed viewers may notice a shot of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” director Hideaki Anno during his tenure at Ghibli in one scene.

The film’s primary motif is loneliness and quiet. Miyazaki is shown living by himself in a home that is colossal by Tokyo standards, with nary a mention of his wife or his son Goro (Hayao’s relationship with Goro has been strained over his publicly stated displeasure  with “Tales From Earthsea,” his son’s directorial debut). Throughout the film, Miyazaki prepares coffee for an unseen documentarian, the drip of the coffee echoing an hourglass. The unglamorous handheld camerawork contrasts sharply with his films’ vivid colorful world of imagination.

The film correlates this solitary air with Ghibli itself. Though Miyazaki has done so much throughout his career, the film perpetuates the idea that Ghibli is Miyazaki and Miyazaki alone. For example, there’s no mention of animator Isao Takahata (Studio Ghibli co-founder, and director of The "Tale of Princess Kaguya", "Grave of the Fireflies", and many more), who passed away two years after this film was made. When prior studio members are mentioned, it’s only to remark their death. Granted, this film isn’t meant to be a history of the studio itself or a chronicle of Miyazaki’s life; it’s a brief episode in his lengthy career. And though it paints a picture of him as lonely, wounded, and uncertain of the future. audiences do see him still moving forward because that’s what he has always done.


"The Hard Nut" Is a Great Twist on "The Nutcracker

Brandon Randolph, Mark Morris, John Heginbotham. Photo by Richard Termine

At the matinee on Saturday, December 22nd, as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I at long last was able to see the marvelous The Hard Nut from 1991—an endlessly inventive reimagining by Mark Morris of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s immeasurably popular The Nutcracker, after the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann—which replaces the American Ballet Theater production of Alexei Ratmansky’s extraordinary adaptation of the same classic.
This is almost certainly the most delightful and charming opus by the choreographer that I have seen, inspired by the work of cartoonist Charles Burns, with wonderful Pop Art-influenced sets designed by Adrianne Lobel and colorful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz. The music was thrillingly performed by the MMDG Music Ensemble and The Hard Nut Singers, admirably conducted by Colin Fowler.
The satirical spirits of Jerome Robbins and Paul Taylor would seem to be Morris’s likely precursors here, although he refreshingly violates the norms of classical ballet. Throughout he maintains a productive tension with the composer’s glorious score, the frequently intense Romanticism of which starkly contrasts with the choreographer’s burlesque. In the first act, Morris stays closer to the ballet’s original scenario, setting the framing story in a Christmas party in an American household of presumably more than forty years ago, while the second act departs into pure phantasmagoria.
I can scarcely do justice to the full panoply of terrific, often gender-bending dancers in this production, including amongst many others: Lauren Grant as Marie; June Omura as Fritz; Lesley Garrison, hilarious and sexy as Louise and Princess Pirlipat; John Heginbotham as Mrs. Stahlbaum and the Queen; Brandon Randolph as the Housekeeper and Nurse; Billy Smith as Drosselmeier; Aaron Loux as the Nutcracker and Young Drosselmeier; and Morris himself—who proves to be an adept comedian—as Dr. Stahlbaum and the King.
The Hard Nut should not be missed and one hopes that it, as well as Ratmansky’s brilliantly Nutcracker, will join George Balanchine’s deservedly celebrated production at New York City Ballet as a permanent Christmas feature locally. I eagerly await the choreographer’s forthcoming Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at BAM, premiering this spring.

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